Our answer to League1 Ontario and the Première ligue de soccer du Québec, the league is awkwardly called the “BC Soccer Regional Tier 3 League” and let’s hope that’s a working title. The model resembles L1O: “an amateur league run professionally” with open-age competition but a developmental mandate. They have no aspiration to paying players. The schedule will appeal primarily to student-athletes while eight of the eighteen players on the team sheet, and four starters, must be U-23. Head coaches must hold the CSA’s national “B” license, and by 2020 the “A” license, and there are minimums on the number of practices per week. League1 Ontario has the same rules.
After waiting so long it would be churlish to look a gift horse in the mouth. BC Soccer has got what appeared to be an immobile ball rolling. Nobody who doesn’t live here will appreciate the innumerable rivalries, jealousies, and simple differences of opinion that make something as simple as “emulating Ontario and Quebec” a veritable streetfight. By accentuating the negative, as I am about to do, I am only contributing to these problems. So a paragraph spent putting it in black and white is a good investment. This league is admirable. I will support it. If I had the cash, I might start a team myself. (More on that topic another day.)
The only problem is that it doesn’t meet every expectation. Rather than filling a role no other league can, it is trying to replace a different, albeit foreign, league.
Many fans were hoping for a new, elite semi-professional league that would improve upon the province’s existing top adult teams. British Columbia already has the amateur players and clubs for a serious, competitive “third division”* atop existing regional leagues that, in addition to improving opportunities for talented youth, could entertain fans, pad the pockets of a few veterans, and develop the modest but spectator-friendly local clubs the province craves. There is a clear appetite for that kind of thing. Cup finals between small-town metro league teams with no exciting prospects in sight draw better crowds than you’d think. The 2015 Jackson Cup final in Victoria brought in a thousand paying fans, for a regional competition where one team played an hour’s drive away.
That’s not what we’re getting. BC Soccer wants fans and is very clear on the need to cultivate a supporter base, separating the new league favourably from what exists today. But the league itself is another youth development league, an adjunct on a player’s Wikipedia page. It’s not the rules about imports or U-23 players which make this; plenty of full-time leagues go that route. It’s the schedule.
A three-month season is short in any event, along the lines of the NCAA-oriented USL Premier Development League and shorter than PLSQ or L1O. PDL fans will know what a mixed blessing that shot-glass of soccer can be, and according to BC Soccer there are no plans for lengthening it. This is bad, but (and this will sound strange to nine other Canadian provinces) playing in summer is just as big a problem.
Historically, British Columbia has played soccer in the winter. Our top leagues of the past, the first incarnations of the Pacific Coast Soccer League, followed winter schedules. Today’s regional leagues, the Vancouver Metro Soccer League, Vancouver Island Soccer League, and Fraser Valley Soccer League, all play in the winter and are highly competitive. The VMSL includes recent professionals like Paris Gee, Jacob Lensky, Alex Marello, Michael Nonni, and Nick Soolsma, along with a selection of former high-end prospects and youth internationals that would provide distinction to any RT3 team.
Not much of this talent ever sees the current, summer Pacific Coast Soccer League, which with its province-wide scope and attraction to collegiates might be called an RT3 precursor. After graduating, many elite players prefer winter play, as it leaves summers open to live life. This talent will choose between giving up the longer and often personally-rewarding metro league season, playing soccer eleven-ish months a year, or skipping RT3 with its 14-game season and no player payment. Bet on the latter.
The current model means an even more developmental league than League1 Ontario, which has a seven-month schedule and a good number of teams. RT3 will be not the crown jewel of British Columbia’s senior soccer scene, but a British Columbia PDL. This is fine so far as it goes but that’s not very far. The actual, USL PDL’s record in British Columbia has been mixed. Victoria and to an extent Abbotsford had plenty of initial interest, then as years passed attendance declined. The league failed to arrest the public. A league that is “the same thing but less good” must have the same problem. There’s a ceiling to the amount of casual interest such ephemeral competition can ever generate.
It’s not that players are developed to star elsewhere; junior hockey and college teams make that attractive to fans. A few weeks’ provincial play will probably be an improvement on just the Highlanders and TSS Rovers at a higher level (probably). It’s that the season is so short. Save for the kernel of die-hard supporters, how do you develop a connection to a team that finishes a season in the blink of an eye? How do you develop love for a player to whom your club is only a footnote? When a PDL player goes pro, he is credited to his NCAA college and his PDL career is trivia for the dedicated. The RT3 league seems headed the same way. Far better than what we have; not as good as what we could.
When Canada went to the 1986 World Cup, it took the cream of British Columbia amateur soccer. The heroic George Pakos was winning Jackson Cups in Victoria, Jamie Lowery was a prominent Island player, and in qualifying Ken Garraway did his share. Serious players for serious teams, and when they played for their local clubs serious crowds cheered them on. Of course no semi-professional player other than a prospect is likely to cap for Canada’s men again, and that’s a good thing. But those were still glory days for provincial soccer, made possible by strong local clubs that weren’t the NASL but fought for fans and trophies in their own right. Keeping college students busy for a few months in the summer will never be the same.
* — When we say “third division” in this context, we mean a provincial soccer league below the international Major League Soccer and the mixed bag of USL, the NASL, and a hypothetical national CanPL. Though the Canadian soccer pyramid is as fake as the American one this terminology is almost universal, hence the “tier 3” in the new BC league. Funnily enough, British Columbia might lay claim to the best real soccer pyramid in Canada and the United States: the VMSL, VISL, and FVSL all include some excellent teams and have full promotion and relegation.
 — BC Soccer. RT3 Information Package, 4. Accessed January 17, 2016. https://www.bcsoccer.net/files/Player/HighPerformance/RT3%20Information%20Package.pdf.
 — BC Soccer. RT3 Operations Manual and Technical Standards, 6. Accessed January 17, 2017. https://www.bcsoccer.net/files/Player/HighPerformance/RT3%20Operations%20Manual%20and%20Technical%20Standards.pdf.
 — Operations Manual, 12.